All-Over Americana (12/15/2000)
Mark Knopfler, Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Bros. 2000) - Sailing to Philadelphia is the new effort from former Dire Straits frontman, Mark Knopfler. With Knopfler's distinctive vocals and confident guitar playing, the album is sure to reward loyal fans.
Sailing to Philadelphia finds Knopfler working with a familiar five-piece band - Richard Bennett on guitars, Jim Cox on piano and Hammond organ, Guy Fletcher on keyboards and backing vocals, Glenn Worf on bass, and Chad Cromwell on drums.
For a guy who says "I love touring, I love writing, I love rehearsing, I love recording - I'm one of those lucky people who likes the whole shebang," Knopfler certainly took his sweet time recording Sailing to Philadelphia. While working on film scores (such as the soundtrack to Wag the Dog), it took 4-1/2 years to complete the new album.
The album is buoyed by numerous guest appearances, including a duet with Van Morrison on the engaging "The Last Laugh," James Taylor on the title track, and ex-Squeeze members, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford on "Silver Town Blues."
The centerpiece of the album is the remarkable "El Macho," with Mike Haynes on flugelhorn and Chris Rodriguez and Tim Davis on backing vocals. "El Macho" has that classic, deep-in-the-hip-pocket Knopfler sound, with a bouncy marimba sound that will make your heart soar.
Knopfler sounds like a somber philosopher - throwing off catchy guitar riffs, yet making deep observations about topics like perseverance and suffering. Says the performer, "There's something in human endeavor that always attracts me, it breaks my heart." At the same time, Knopfler manages to avoid the dour disposition of such elder statesmen as Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
Maybe Mark Knopfler doesn't break new ground on Sailing to Philadelphia. Yet the ground he's already covered is more than rewarding.
Sumack, Now Hear This (V2 Records 2000) - Sumack is a five-piece combo that plays experimental rock. Or call it modern rock. Or whatever. In any event, the sounds are always changing. Sumack consists of Daniel Bernath on bass, Mark McAdam on guitars, Pete McNeil on drums (Pete is the only member who does not handle vocals), Kit Pongetti on percussion, and Rod Sherwood on keyboards and samples.
While Sumack's early recordings were described as "studies in lo-fi, guerilla production," Now Hear This has a polished, if eclectic, Hollywood sound. According to the press materials, Sumack plays "with the conviction of zealots and demeanor of grad students."
I dig the spoken word vocals on the cheeky, "Regarding Saturday," and "Superdome" brings to mind the early stylings of Cake. Kit Pongetti steps up to handle lead vocals on the languid "Downfall Days," which brings the mind the vocals of Jacqueline Abbott of the Beautiful South.
Guitarist Mark McAdam describes the new album as, "Post-punk-hip-hop-folk-a-billy, or whatever." Yet Sumack are no flakes: Witness the polished trip-pop of "Dranjann Take One," while "Hey Professor" opens with shimmering guitars. My favorite cut is track three, "Do-Si-Do," with its loopy beat and cockamamie lyrics.
Now Hear This is like beat poetry, enhanced by a whole bunch of found sounds and catchy melodies. Adds the press materials, "Sumack's junk rock is indeed broadened by their skill, or lack thereof, in handling whatever apparatus is available: Accordion, moog, turntables, water bottles, pipes, chains, and plastic crank-guitars."
The band has attitude enough to go around. Says Sumack, "We have a certain vision of production - being pretty out there and strange and hopefully kind of new - but the bottom line for all of us, all the time, is that we like writing the songs." Mix in a sense of being out of place, an aliens-in-Hollywood outlook. Explains Mark McAdam, "None of us grew up in Los Angeles. We're all homesick for somewhere else."
Homesick or not, Sumack makes a heady brew of modern rock. If you're looking for something new, try Now Hear This.
Bap Kennedy, Lonely Street (Dressed2Kill Records 2000) - Lonely Street is the third release from Irish musician Bap Kennedy (whose brother, Brian Kennedy, played for several years in Van Morrison's band). The new album finds Bap exploring Americana, with Hank Williams, Sr. as a stated influence (though you will also hear plenty of Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis).
Bap Kennedy was the former lead singer of the Celtic blues band, Energy Orchard. Kennedy has two prior releases under his belt, including the Steve Earle-produced Domestic Blues. Kennedy certainly brings the right kind of attitude to this music.
The band includes Kennedy on guitar, vocals and harmonica, Kieran Kiely on accordion, Martin Hughes on drums, Herbie Flowers on bass, and Vera Haime and Jemima Price on backing vocals.
Says the singer, "I thought stuff like Hank Williams was quite Irish soundin'." A true man of the blarney stone, Kennedy continues: "I started off as a punk rocker in Belfast. Ya know, start a band one day, and in 24 hours you 'ave a gig. I don't think there is anyone else in Ireland playing country, don't think there is anyone else I know of."
While Bap opens in a slower mode with "Good Times on Franklin Road," he picks up the tempo with tracks like "Stuck with Myself" and the giddy reel, "Drunk on the Blood of Christ." Another pleasure is the bouncy, "Be Careful What You Wish For," in which Nashville meets Irish good times.
Kennedy sails best on the tracks with trumpet player Martin Shaw - "Lonely Street," and most impressively, "Almost Always Wrong." "Almost Always Wrong" is a classic uptempo Irish rocker, with a great Wall-of-Sound approach - I still can't figure out how Kennedy overlaid all the instruments to get this great studio result.
I don't care as much for the slower tracks on this album. But the big dogs more than carry the weight, especially "Almost Always Wrong." You're going to hear this song some day - and I told you first.
Claire Lynch, Lovelight (Rounder 2000) - With a performing career stretching back more than 20 years, Claire Lynch is no greenhorn. Yet the resident of Hazel Green, Alabama, didn't step into the stoplight until 1997, when she was named the female vocalist of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Lovelight demonstrates why she won that honor, as well as two Grammy nominations. With a gentle voice, backed by her talented Front Porch String Band, Claire Lynch shows that she's the real deal.
While Nashville would like to claim her as its own, Ms. Lynch is steeped in bluegrass through and through. Says the singer, "I don't like dark. I like to stay away from that side; I leave that to other people who enjoy it more. I like those old folk songs, and I appreciate them for what they are."
Adds Ms. Lynch, "I love to play to a full room; I feel my career has developed as much as it has because God has allowed it." Her goals are "getting through all these gigs and loving the music and the road, doing a lot more writing, and raising my kids (she has two teenagers) without too much guilt."
The Front Porch String Band consists of husband, Larry Lynch on mandolin, bass player Missy Raimes (a two-time recipient of the IBMA bass player of the year award), and guitarist Jim Hurst. Other musicians appearing on the album include Glen Duncan and Robert Bowlin (fiddler), Rob Icks (dobro) and Alison Brown (piano).
In describing her combo, Ms. Lynch says, "I'm extremely comfortable playing with them, and I think they have a big hand in my acceptance as an artist. They make me look really good, and I do admire and appreciate them deeply."
The artist (who met her husband at the University of Alabama) continues. "We are based in bluegrass, and they know I respect it. I think the fact that I do gospel has helped too; that's made them relax a little."
Bluegrass is a delicate kind of music - in the hands of a master, it's achingly beautiful. Ms. Lynch draws apt comparisons to Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss on such songs as "Blue Water Holler," "Stranger Things Have Happened," and "Sweethearts Again."
With a spare, understated backing combo, Lovelight has a refreshing focus on the songs and the singer. Also listen for "Missionary Ridge," which draws on the traditional bluegrass theme of times gone by.
An able artist with a sure sense of herself, Claire Lynch shines on Lovelight in all the places that Dolly Parton missed on last year's coulda-been-great The Grass is Blue.
Best of Three Dog Night (MCA Records 2000) - Three Dog Night enjoyed huge AM radio success from 1969 to 1974, riding on their use of excellent songwriters. Best of Three Dog Night gathers 12 tracks from the fun-loving combo.
Three Dog Night (the name came from an Australian expression referring to it being so cold that one would need three dogs for warmth), was formed in 1968 with Irish immigrant Danny Hutton, Bronx-born Chuck Negron, and former Buffalo native Cory Wells. The combo nearly signed with the Beach Boys' Brother Records label, but learned that Brian Wilson would not be able to produce their full album.
Success came quickly, as "Eli's Coming" (by Laura Nyro) charted at No. 10 in 1967, followed by No. 5 hit, "One" (by Harry Nilsson), and the group's first No. 1 single, "Mama Told Me Not to Come" (by Randy Newman).
The hits kept coming, including "Black & White," "An Old Fashioned Love Song" (by Paul Williams), "Liar" (by Russ Ballard), and two chart toppers written by Hoyt Axton, "Never Been to Spain" and their third No. 1 single, "Joy to the World." Also included is their No. 3 single from 1973, "Shambala."
An impressive run of billboard success, distilled to one disk. Even after 30 years, Best of Three Dog Night shows how to make a hit song.
- Randy Krbechek © 2000
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